Studying Tiger Woods: The Academic Value of Message Board Rants

Duke anthropologist Orin Starn analyzed Internet message boards to appraise America's reaction to the Tiger Woods sex scandal.

Duke Anthropologist Orin Starn

In his new book, "The Passion of Tiger Woods," Duke anthropologist Orin Starn analyzed Internet message boards to take stock of America and the way it reacted to the golf star's sex scandal and fall from grace.

Here, Starn discusses his use of message board fodder as academic study material and the lessons learned.

Much of your research for the Tiger Woods book examined the chatter on Internet message boards, most of which was anonymous. Why did you do so, and are anonymous sources legitimate for academic study?

"I found chat rooms and message boards especially useful for getting at the persistence of racial anxiety, stereotyping and hatred of various kinds.  As Don Imus and others have found, there's a whole set of slurs and worse that, thankfully, you can't use in public now in the post-civil rights era without losing your job, or at least getting into trouble. 

"Most people, if they have racist views, are not dumb enough to voice them in public, much less to some inquiring anthropologist with his tape recorder.  But the luxury of Internet anonymity changes things: it allows people to say whatever they want without worrying about the consequences.  And, in fact, you realize how much old fears and fantasies still very much circulate if you delve a bit into the Internet chatter about the case of a Tiger Woods, an O.J. Simpson or a Herman Cain.  The message boards and chat rooms are like a peephole into the uncensored racial id of 21st century America."

What did you learn by studying that culture that you wouldn't have otherwise?

"I sometimes remind my students that if aliens landed and started watching TV, going to the movies or reading the newspaper, they might imagine that race was fixed in America. We live in a post-civil rights world characterized, after all, by a painfully politically correct one-of-each-kind-in-every-Budweiser-commercial-and-college admissions-brochure culture.  But, for all the progress we've made, America is still a country very much divided by race in everything -- from where we worship to whom we marry and where we live -- and one also where all kinds of bizarre and sometime hateful stereotypes and beliefs about race still circulate.

"The universe of anonymous Internet posting is one way to get at the hidden world of bigotry and racial ideologies that's often afraid to show its face in the broader light of a nation that likes to pride itself on having put the bad old days of segregation and apartheid behind it."

Should readers draw significant conclusions from the ravings of anonymous message board trolls? Aren't these folks the exception in society, not the norm?

"There's lots of debate in media studies as well about just what to make of our cyber-lives.  Is what we do when we go on, say, Facebook or an expression of our authentic selves, if such a thing exists? Or the creation of some kind of avatarish 'second self' that's somehow more appealing or at least different from whom we really are?  Or neither or both? There's no simple answer and, as we anthropologists rather monotonously like to stress, it always depends on the particular case and circumstances. 

"In the case of the Tiger Woods scandal, however, it seemed clear to me that the sheer volume of nasty racist posts shows the survival of a language of racism and stereotyping that you don't see in the more usual public arenas of American culture. Tiger, clearly, was partly 'blackened' by the scandal, re-imagined no longer as the postracial hero and instead as the stereotypical hypersexualized black man of racist fear and fantasy.

"You can really see this in the endless and mostly anonymous Internet posts following the scandal, and it'd be hard to get at through more traditional ethnographic methods like sit-down interviews or surveys."